Stress – something we’re all undoubtedly familiar with.
Whether the stressor is short and immediate as you’re running late for work and accidentally jam your toe in the door, to things more long-term like regularly consuming inflammatory foods or a high stress job, we tend to perceive stress as a bad thing.
And what do we often blame for the feelings of stress within our body? Cortisol.
Commonly referred to as the “stress hormone,” cortisol tends to get a bad rap.
However, while it’s certainly tied to stress, and can create some unpleasant symptoms like anxiety, poor sleep, and weight gain, it’s actually far more than just a hormone that floats around only when we’re stressed out.
In fact, we’d be wrong to blame all of our stress entirely on cortisol – it’s actually only 1 of 3 ‘stress hormones’, along with norepinephrine and epinephrine.
And as it turns out, cortisol plays a pretty important role in our lives!
Some roles of cortisol:
- Helps get us out of bed in the morning
- Provides regular energy throughout the day
- Maintains a healthy metabolism
- Assists in blood pressure regulation
- Supports immune system function
- Regulates our water / salt balance
- Reduces inflammation
So then why do we stress about cortisol? (pun intended)
Well, sometimes too much of ‘a good thing’, especially for too long, isn’t so good afterall. Cortisol is no exception.
Unfortunately, our modern world bombards us with daily stressors from chemicals in personal care products, pesticides, stress at work, relationships, lack of sleep, and many more. If left unchecked, stress levels may rise and stay there, leaving us feeling fatigued and anxious.
Thankfully though, there are plenty of tools you can use to manage your cortisol levels. And according to research, one of the BEST ways is actually through food.
But before we dig into it, let’s learn a bit more about this ‘vilified’ hormone.
How is cortisol produced and why?
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands and gets released after a series of detailed communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and the adrenals, known as the HPA axis (1).
Like many systems in the body, cortisol follows a circadian rhythm.
- Cortisol levels will peak roughly within an hour of waking
- Followed by a steady drop into the evening
- Reaching its lowest value just before bed. During this time, melatonin rises triggering the fall of cortisol – this makes us sleepy!
- The cycle continues into the night, with cortisol levels picking back up around 2am, eventually rising enough to say “hey, it’s time to wake up.”
The well known ‘fight or flight response’
Maybe you’ve heard of the ‘fight or flight response’ – when our body senses a potential danger or threat, alerting us to either run or stay and fight (maybe not literally). Cortisol is largely responsible for activating this response. (2)
It works by pumping glucose into our muscles so they have energy to help us move, while also increasing blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate – all of which helps us react quickly!
At the same time, it momentarily shuts down other systems that are not immediately needed – like reproduction, digestion, and immunity (3). This is a good thing! If we’re faced with an immediate danger, the priority is survival, not making a baby or digesting food. Read this blog post for more details on the connection between progesterone (an important reproductive hormone) and stress.
So, what’s the problem?
This fight or flight response is activated each time our body perceives something as stressful – no matter how big or small the stress really is. And as we mentioned earlier, we are inundated with daily stressors, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not.
Of course many of our modern day stressors are not a life or death situation, but the fight or flight response is activated multiple times within a day (from relationship stressors, work, busy schedules, family stressors, constant blue light, injury, and much more), consistently raising cortisol and not allowing it to steadily fall as it should.
When we live a high stress lifestyle and aren’t paying attention to cortisol regulation….
Cortisol levels then become chronically elevated. And then we have a problem.
Impacts of chronically elevated cortisol:
When these levels are too high for too long, inflammation can set in, potentially causing a long list of health problems, including:
- Anxiety, mood imbalances, depression
- Digestive problems
- Thyroid issues
- Cardiovascular disease
- Sugar cravings
- Poor sleep
- Skin troubles
- Irregular or missing cycles
- Other hormone imbalances
- Weakened immune system
- Fertility challenges
- Changes in weight
- Low libido
- High blood pressure
This can happen quickly as nearly every cell in our body has a receptor for cortisol, which means we can store a lot of it.
Our brain is especially full of these receptors and research has shown that if they chronically hold cortisol, our brain can atrophy, memory and cognition may be affected, and our resilience to future stressors might be reduced. (4)
How to support healthy cortisol levels:
Thankfully there are many ways you can manage cortisol levels to keep anxiety at bay! And as we mentioned, one of the best ways to do this is through the foods you eat.
The bottom line is this:
Consume plenty of nutrient-dense whole foods to help regulate your cortisol levels.
Neurotransmitters are the communicators with our brain and therefore send signals that greatly impact our mood. Cortisol works directly with these neurotransmitters but so do vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. (5)
Here are my top 5 nutrients of focus:
- Vitamin C: Citrus fruits, blueberries, kale, tomatoes, kiwi, bell peppers, cauliflower
- B vitamins: especially B6/ B12/ B9. Found in a wide variety of nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and animal products.
- Omega-3’s: Wild fish, walnuts, chia/ flax seeds, check out my recent IG post for more info on these incredible foods
- Prebiotics: Artichoke, asparagus, garlic, onions, chicory root, oats, seaweed
- Magnesium: Cacao, dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, legumes, quinoa, buckwheat
What Else to Help Regulate Cortisol?
Create an evening routine:
If you find it hard to fall asleep at night yet feel exhausted during the day (the opposite of what we want….) this could be a result of dys-regulated cortisol. To bring this back to balance, try to set yourself up for a good sleep.
Here are some helpful ways to get ready for bed:
- Set your phone aside an hour or two before bed
- Turn off bright lights, switch to “mood lighting” – candles, lava lamps, hanging lights, etc.
- Diffuse calming essential oils like lavender
- Sip on chamomile tea
- Try a few minutes of light stretching and/ or deep breathing
- Read a light book (I try to avoid anything too sciency or in-depth, the goal is to really allow my brain a moment to relax and not think too hard)
Keep an eye on caffeine:
I’m actually not completely against caffeine, it can provide some health benefits when consumed with a little extra caution!
However, it’s important to look at how much you’re consuming and when you do so. Drinking caffeine late in the day can really throw your hormones out of whack – and cause A LOT of trouble for sleep patterns because it has a half life of 5 hours! If you’re having troubles with sleep – I recommend avoiding any caffeinated beverages after 10am and instead switching to Swiss water process decaf or herbal teas for the rest of the day.
One of my favourite ways to ground my nervous system is to get into nature! This has incredible impacts on our mood by cultivating a healthy microbiome which in turn, produces mood boosting neurotransmitters!
Go for a walk, maybe a hike, bike ride, or even a swim. And a big bonus if you go without headphones or spend a little time barefoot.
Give a hug:
In a study looking at cortisol levels within couples, it was found that partners who were more physically affectionate, like hugging or holding hands, had on average lower cortisol levels. (6)
Whether it’s with a partner, friend, or even your dog, simply giving a hug can ease your anxiety and bring you back to a state of calm.
Some of my go to’s are: Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Lemon Balm, GABA. (7)
I hope you’ve learned that cortisol is not so bad after all…. however instead it is chronically elevated levels that can wreck havoc on our nervous system and bodies.
What’s important is that we use tools to REGULATE our cortisol levels. In doing so we can help to prevent many of the pesky symptoms that come along with chronically elevated cortisol levels or eventual burn out.
Going forward, I recommend choosing ONE thing you’re going to focus on most over the next week or 2. This might mean trying to get in more Vitamin C rich foods like berries and citrus OR it might mean making a more dramatic lifestyle change like cutting back on your caffeine consumption – or mindfully creating an evening time routine. After you’ve mastered that one – try adding another!
If you want to dig deeper into the way you can regulate your cortisol levels to help keep anxiety at bay through the food you eat and lifestyle practices you take – reach out directly to inquire about one on one nutrition coaching!
A huge thank you to McKenna Garrison for all her amazing work on this blog post. Learn more from McKenna here on Instagram at: @btb.mckenna